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One-Man Blogs Prove There Is Money to Be Made by Online Journals

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PaidContent, IWantMedia are going a long way toward proving that advertisers will support relevant content.

If you really care about a particular topic, you want to read everything written about it every day. In the old days, that meant companies and the government often hired a clipping service that sent along mimeographs of relevant news stories from papers and magazines. Enter the Internet and automated services that help find news relevant to your business or interest.

And with Weblogs -- basically real-time online journals -- you've got a format that's perfect for going farther, summing up news, linking to it and throwing in two cents of commentary. While many blogs do this, there are two in the media realm, PaidContent.org and IWantMedia, that are noteworthy for bringing in real revenues by selling advertising and doing original reporting. Plus, they are run entirely by one person who acts as writer, editor, publisher, ad salesman, promotions director, janitor, etc.

IWantMedia is the brainchild of ex-PR guy Patrick Phillips, who posts links and summaries to dozens of stories about the media business, with sections devoted to magazines and newspapers, TV and radio, Internet and digital media, advertising and marketing and media companies. He also runs a popular e-mail newsletter and does original Q&A's with media professionals. An online poll last year annointed Martha Stewart as "media person of the Year," and notables such as Tina Brown and Michael Wolff voted and commented online.

So Phillips has the media industry's attention, and a recent story in PR Week shows that media flacks are trying to cash in on his cachet. But can he cash in? IWantMedia is still a side business and promotional platform for him, as Phillips continues to do corporate writing as his main source of income. IWantMedia revenues come from site and newsletter advertising, as well as licensing his content to other sites -- along with a surprising amount from being an Amazon affiliate for books.

Though he has entertained buyout offers from media companies, he told me "the offers could have been better" -- and some of those making offers aren't in business anymore, he noted wryly.

PaidContent for free

Then there's Rafat Ali, 27, the master of PaidContent.org, a Weblog that's very much not a non-profit despite its domain name. Ali started by covering the business of online paid content, who is charging what for what service, and he has spun out separate digests on mobile content and digital music. He mixes a blog with original reporting, and also sells ads and makes business deals.

Ali got advice from Phillips when he started his Weblog just a year ago, and he has a strong reporting background working for Inside.com and Silicon Alley Reporter. But in a shorter time, he's outdone Phillips by supporting himself completely through ad sales and sponsorships -- to the tune of $60,000 per year in revenues and growing. While that money might get chewed up with overhead costs in other operations, Ali keeps it lean by doing HTML coding by hand, and he worked for a design agency in exchange for cheap hosting. "My startup costs were close to zero," he told me. "I'm lucky to know both sides, back end and front end."

Ali has 2,500 subscribers to his e-mail newsletter, basically an automated snapshot of his home page. He makes money from speaking engagements in Europe (he's based in London), and has had sponsors pay for trips to conferences -- which he notes is crucial for networking. Despite admitting that he's really not an expert in the area -- he refuses to do consulting gigs -- Ali says his strengths are having important contacts gleaned from his reporting background and his ability to break news stories. Most recently, he broke the story of The New York Times making its news alert a paid service.

While The End of Free Weblog predates PaidContent by more than a year, it is a group effort by people who aren't giving their full focus to the blog. Olivier Travers, a co-founder of The End of Free, says he doesn't focus as much on "free-to-fee" issues anymore because it's becoming an "old discussion." He's now more interested in making money online and is devoting his energy to the MarketingFix group Weblog.

Ali beat The End of Free gang by doing original reporting and spending 14 to 16 hours a day focused on his site -- much of that time devoted to reading and summarizing other sources for news. "Link, link, link, link," he says. "I can link everybody to death."

But will he ever charge for content, like all the various outlets he covers so voraciously? "I really don't know. I'm in the dark about it just like everybody else."

I'm your editor, I'm your publisher

Phillips and Ali are forced by circumstances (i.e., lack of money) to handle all business aspects of their sites, and they can't afford to hire salespeople. For journalists, this is usually a red flag because advertisers often jockey for better editorial coverage. Phillips said he hasn't had any perception problems and hasn't favored any publications that have advertised on IWantMedia.

Ali has had trouble with one advertiser, Yaga, dominating his newsletter. "Yes, people (mainly vendors) have confused that I am promoting [Yaga] a little too much," he told me. "Vendors are sort of demanding an 'equal share' of the limited inventory I have. My media and entertainment audience, I am sure, doesn't care one way or the other."

Ali set up the separate sites on mobile content and digital music as a way to increase his ad inventory, which has sold out in some areas months in advance. But despite his clarity in marking sponsored sections, one ethicist said there could be problems down the line.

"With trade magazines, there's less of a distinction of editorial and advertising," said Jeff Seglin, who pens a monthly column on business ethics for The New York Times. "And it's a much grayer area online, where there's now a desperation to come up with a business model. Right now, it's early on, and no one knows the proper ethics. But as time goes on, wearing two hats [editor and publisher] could be a big issue. There's a potential for perceived conflict."

Travers, a co-founder of The End of Free, doesn't see things in such stark terms. "I question balanced reporting from anyone," he told me in an e-mail. "Supposedly strict separations or so-called 'Chinese walls' between editorial and advertising in media companies, or between bankers and analysts within Wall Street firms, have been proved more than leaky. A single person blogging for money at least has his/her own reputation directly at stake."

Ali agrees, and he knows his reputation for neutrality is what's bringing back readers. But he still would like to separate business duties at some point. "From an operational point of view, yes, I do need to hire somebody who understands the business, the vendors, etc., maybe like a freelance business development person," he said. "I am looking for one, just that as far as cash flow goes, I cannot afford much."

So is the one-man Weblog doomed to ethical dilemmas and difficult business models? Perhaps, but the success of Ali in finding the right niche and the right audience makes ad sales much more likely. Many people are skeptical of the idea of one-man blogs banding together (a la Nick Denton's operation), but Phillips says, "If Rafat can make a full-time job out of PaidContent, more power to him. He provides a timely, relevant news service with an intelligent mix of links and original reporting." And that, in the end, is exactly why both blogs have been must-see sites for media junkies.

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Related Links
E-Media Tidbits: Denton's New Venture: Weblogs, the Next Level
IWantMedia
MarketingFix
Media Person of the Year -- 2002
PR Week: Broad appeal means media biz Weblog doesn't want for traffic
PaidContent.org
PaidContent: NY Times Launches E-mail Alert Subscription Service
The End of Free
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